BANGOR, Maine — Someone yelling “Call 911! Call 911!” early Monday morning woke Amy Littlefield and Bill Watson from their slumber, and within minutes smoke from a fast-moving fire engulfed their second-floor apartment on Center Street.
“I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe,” Littlefield said while standing across the street from 240 Center St. an hour or so later. “We woke up to the lady out back screaming there was a fire downstairs.”
Littlefield was in pajama bottoms, a pink sweater and Watson’s jacket. Her boyfriend stood beside her wearing a jacket and black leather boots without shoelaces.
The couple grabbed two cats, Hope and Isis, but the invading smoke forced them to leave without a third cat named Princess Tiger Lily.
“By the time we called 911 the flames were everywhere,” Littlefield said. “We couldn’t see.”
Seven engines, including the ladder truck and other equipment from Bangor Fire Department, arrived at the multiunit apartment building fire shortly after the 7:45 a.m. 911 call, and firefighters quickly made sure that residents were out of the 2½-story apartment house.
“Everybody is out safe,” Assistant Fire Chief Vance Tripp said at the scene.
The five-unit apartment building is located on the corner on Center and McKinley streets. Center Street, between St. Joseph Hospital and South Park Street, was blocked with fire equipment until around 1 p.m.
Assistant Fire Chief Darrell Cyr, who was the fire scene commander, said two of the residents were transported to an area hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation. He added that a couple of firefighters slipped on the ice created when water they were using to fight the blaze froze.
The fire appears to have started on the first floor of the back portion of the building and quickly spread as it “traveled through all kinds of nooks and crannies,” Cyr said. “The back part is pretty much gutted.”
Firefighters wearing self-contained breathing systems fought the blaze from the inside until the stubborn fire reached the attic and made conditions unsafe and forced them to move outside, he said.
Firefighters could be seen refilling the small air tanks from a portable high-pressure air compressor parked just down the street.
“The front half [of the structure] is salvageable,” Cyr said. “There is smoke and water damage, and damage from us looking for fire.”
The State Fire Marshal’s Office was called in to investigate the cause of the fire, and investigators spent Monday afternoon going through the debris. Sgt. Tim York of the fire marshal’s office said the investigation into the cause is expected to take at least until Tuesday.
“We’re still working on it,” he said Monday afternoon, adding that more interviews needed to be done.
Littlefield said she heard that a downstairs neighbor had put a cloth over a lamp and it got so hot that it caught fire.
“We have heard that, but we haven’t yet determined if that is a factor,” York said.
Members of the Pine Tree Chapter of the American Red Cross arrived at the scene and could be seen assisting those displaced by the fire.
The local chapter is assisting nine people, including one young child, who were displaced by the apartment building fire, said Gretchen O’Grady, emergency services director.
“We’re putting up several of them and providing client assistant cards for clothing, food and seasonal garments” such as coats, hats and gloves, she said. “One guy was walking around in stocking feet.”
The Pine Tree Chapter assists eastern and northern Mainers whenever there is a disaster, Erin Merrill, the chapter’s executive director, said in a press release.
“As the holidays approach and the weather gets colder, the chapter is responding to more house fires and other local disasters, providing emergency shelter, food, clothing and emotional support,” she said.
Monday’s fire in Bangor follows two in Hancock County over the weekend, O’Grady noted. The Pine Tree Chapter helped four people whose home burned on Saturday in Bar Harbor, and on Sunday night four Trenton residents escaped a fire with only the clothes on their backs, the press release said.
Littlefield said 11 people lived at the Bangor apartment house, including five couples, one with a young child who was staying at a relative’s. She said there was no time to do anything except rescue her pets.
“We grabbed the cats and we ran,” Littlefield said.
Watson added that the couple got out with little or nothing.
“What she got on and what I got on” is all they have, he said.
After Watson and Littlefield left the burning building, a woman who lives across the street welcomed the couple into her warm home.
“I don’t know her at all,” Watson said. “She just came out and asked if we wanted to come in.”
The good Samaritan is Alice Smith, who lives directly across from Monday’s fire. She said she saw people in need and wanted to do what she could to help.
“They both were holding cats and I invited them to come in and warm up and have coffee,” she said while standing in her kitchen. “I felt so bad.”
Red Cross volunteers could be seen leading other displaced renters to Smith’s home. One man wore no jacket and had only socks on his feet. The group’s emergency response vehicle arrived later and partnered with the Salvation Army response vehicle to provide a hot drink and food to firefighters and those who lost their homes.
Smith said she wasn’t the only one who assisted those who lived in the apartment house.
“I saw someone run across the street with boots and another one give a blanket,” she said. “I thought that was nice.”
A group of her displaced neighbors stayed at her home for around four hours, Smith said.
“I just wanted to make sure they were taken care of,” she said.
With Christmas just five days away, those who rented apartments in the building also lost presents in the blaze.
“All my kids’ Christmas presents are upstairs,” Littlefield said. “This is not a good way to start out.”
Cyr said fires that happen during the holidays are hard.
“There is no good time for a fire, but when it’s Christmas, it’s always more difficult on families,” the assistant fire chief said.